Pretty simple and straightforward sentence – “Your first architectural job is important.” Let me clarify that I’m not talking about summer jobs or internships … those don’t really count. No, what I’m talking about is the first real job a person takes once they’ve graduated from college – the job that signals the beginning of their professional career.
Yesterday, I took a lunchtime site visit with Landon Williams, a young associate in my office, to check in on the construction progress of this year’s playhouse. During the return leg of this trip, we had a conversation about first jobs. It seems to me that very few people take a position in one man shops anymore – something that was fairly common when I graduated from college in 1992. Some of you might recall that the economy was in poor shape and jobs for recently graduated architects were hard to find. A great many of the people I graduated with had a hard time finding work and took whatever job they could find – most of which were in very small architectural offices, a trend that I don’t really see continuing today. Most of the single person offices I know of tend to make their first hire someone in the 2-to-5 years experience range.
My first job was with a sole-practitioner and I was the first employee he had ever hired (this is the same person that I am currently partnering with some 25 years later) and since it was only the two of us, there were opportunities afforded to me out of necessity. Despite the fact that I didn’t know very much, I found myself drawing complete projects within weeks, running client meetings by myself, and having an unreasonable amount of latitude with the design work on these projects for someone with my experience. The necessary responsibilities made available to me during this first real job fundamentally shaped how I worked and how I view this profession, even to this day .
Despite any currently available evidence, in 1992 I was not a “go out to the bar” type of person, and my future wife was 200 miles south of Dallas getting her Master’s Degree in Mathematics. I was 24 years old when I took my first “real” job and I didn’t have anything else I would rather be doing than going up to work. While some of my friends had taken jobs in larger companies, doing site adapts for big-box chain stores, I was free to do almost anything I wanted. There were no timesheets, just deadlines. If I wanted to spend 30 hours coming up with design options or building chipboard study models, as long as I got to where I needed to be by a certain day, I could do whatever I wanted.
And so I did just that. My transition to the real world of practicing architecture was just a few degrees off from my college studio experience. I have no doubt that my generally sunny disposition towards this profession was fundamentally shaped during this first job.
If you are an architect, your first job is incredibly important because this job, more than any others that will follow, will have a profound impact on how you come to view the profession. This first job will effect how you think about architecture and professional practice, it will shape the way you think about design and how you actually put it into practice, and it will forge what sort of investment you will have with this profession. I am not advocating that unless you work for a sole practitioner you are going to be miserable – that’s just how it worked out for me. As I was having this conversation with Landon I couldn’t help but look at him and think that his current opportunities right out of school are not so different from mine 25 years ago. My office is full of people who are self-motivated problem solvers and I ask them to do things every day that they don’t know how to do yet – in some cases, I don’t know how to do them either. Not knowing how to do something isn’t typically the problem, it’s when you don’t do anything about this ignorance that things turn sour. I think small offices are forced to empower people to believe that they can do more than they think they can out of necessity, and empowerment typically has a profound effect on an individual’s development.
Does this mean that you’re doomed if your first job is terrible? No, but if your job isn’t what you need it to be, I’d recommend doing something about it as soon as possible.